Brian Viner: England seal joyful victory after magical series

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But, for all that, the Ashes have been an Australian possession no less than Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef these past 16 years, hence the euphoria in south London and indeed across the land yesterday as they were finally reclaimed. And reclaimed, it should be added, from a declining yet still great Australian side, containing two of the finest bowlers ever to have played the grand old game, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. As congas broke out among the crowd at the Oval, even Mark Nicholas, the suave Channel 4 anchorman, lost his usual composure, fleetingly referring to the England captain Michael Vaughan as "Michael Urn".

There was, in truth, more than a whiff of confusion and anti- climax about the way it all ended, with the umpires leading the players off for bad light and nobody quite knowing when to declare the draw that yielded England the five-match series by two wins to one. It was an absurd finale to a truly epic contest that, until the final couple of hours, had had the nailbiting tension of an extended penalty shoot-out.

Actually, the analogy is not entirely appropriate; some would say comparisons with football only besmirch a series that has been played with admirable spirit and sportsmanship, and which England have won by playing brilliantly. After all, it is less than a week since their multi-millionaire footballing counterparts were humbled in a World Cup qualifier by Northern Ireland, with David Beckham and Wayne Rooney almost coming to blows in the dressing-room at half-time.

What would the beleaguered England football coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, do to step into the shoes of the cricket coach, Duncan Fletcher? Take a pay cut? Swear a vow of celibacy? Give up herring? Whatever, Fletcher, the self-effacing architect of England's momentous victory, must surely be in line for a knighthood. Once his British citizenship comes through, that is. Fletcher, a Zimbabwean who has utterly rejuvenated English cricket, can't get a passport.

When he does, the new strictures about not smiling for the photograph shouldn't be a problem; Fletcher has the lugubrious countenance of an undertaker with piles. But he deserves to smile today and he deserves the tap of cold steel on his shoulder. He should be rewarded in the way that Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Clive Woodward were, because this Ashes victory is no less momentous than the famous victories they oversaw in football and rugby union.

Fletcher is not the only African in the England camp, incidentally. Some mean spirits will point out that Kevin Pietersen, the man who finally killed off Aussie hopes with his swashbuckling innings of 158, grew up closer to Pretoria than Preston.

But the same cannot be said of the man now odds-on to be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the giant Lancastrian Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff. He has bestrode the summer like a colossus, and was duly voted England's man of the series, for which he received a magnum of champagne and a cheque for £4,000. That's four grand for two months work, rather begging another comparison with our overpaid and underperforming footballers.

Man-of-the-series Flintoff was delighted - he said the day was "special, really special". Man-of-the-match Pietersen was speechless, and then proceeded to reel off a fulsome tribute to his team-mates, while Michael Vaughan, the man who led England to victory, summed it up: "At the beginning of the summer, it was a real distant dream, but now it has become a reality."

The Australian captain Ricky Ponting was gracious: "England have played great cricket right through the summer. It has been just the best Test series that I have ever been part of." No one would expect anything less generous from the Australians - nor of the sting: "I am looking forward to the next battle."

So what now? Today, the England players will soak up public adulation on an open-top bus journey through the streets of London, the same honour that was accorded to Woodward's rugby players, also following victory over Australia.

However, for a while yesterday morning, as the Australian bowlers started ripping through England's batting order, it looked as though the victory parade might have to be re-routed through the streets of Earl's Court, where much of the population is Antipodean. Maybe it should pop down there anyway. Sporting victories over Australia are still as rare as a dodo's egg, and we must savour them while we can.